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Trump lawyers offer detailed defense to Mar-a-Lago case

In a letter to lawmakers, Trump’s legal team urges Congress to make the Justice Department ‘stand down’

This image contained in a court filing by the Justice Department shows a photo of documents seized during the Aug. 8 FBI search of former president Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate. (Department of Justice/AP)
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Donald Trump’s legal team on Wednesday offered its most detailed public defense yet of the former president’s conduct in the classified documents case now being investigated by a special counsel — arguing that the Justice Department should be ordered to “stand down” on the probe.

The unusual 10-page letter seeks to pull the legislative branch further into the classified documents case, in which federal prosecutors have convened a grand jury to hear evidence into whether Trump or those close to him mishandled classified documents or obstructed government efforts to retrieve them. The grand jury has been hearing testimony from dozens of witnesses in recent months, including Trump’s own lawyer Evan Corcoran.

The letter is notable in two ways — first, as a detailed argument for the case to be dropped, a request lodged not with the investigators but with elected officials. Second, it focuses mostly on Trump’s alleged conduct before — not after — a May subpoena demanded he return classified documents kept after his presidency. Trump’s post-subpoena conduct is a key focus of the investigation, according to people familiar with the matter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe an ongoing case.

The Trump team also argues that White House practices for handling classified information, across multiple administrations, differ so much from how other parts of the government handle national secrets that the Mar-a-Lago case should be handled as a civil matter, not a criminal one. The lawyers note that classified documents have also been found at the homes of President Biden and Trump’s former vice president, Mike Pence.

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The Justice Department, Trump’s lawyers wrote in their letter to House Intelligence Committee Chairman Michael R. Turner (R-Ohio), “should be ordered to stand down, and the intelligence community should instead conduct an appropriate investigation and provide a full report to this Committee, as well as your counterparts in the Senate.”

It would be highly unusual for the legislative branch of government to order a particular outcome in a criminal case, yet that appears to be precisely what Trump’s advisers are seeking. Arguing that the investigation is politically motivated against a 2024 presidential candidate, Trump’s attorneys — Timothy Parlatore, John Rowley, James Trusty and Lindsey Halligan — urge politicians to intervene and end it.

“We have seen absolutely no indication that President Trump knowingly possessed any of the marked documents or willfully broke any laws,” said their letter, which was first reported by CNN.

The letter’s defense of the former president focuses primarily on Trump’s conduct in early 2022, as the National Archives and Records Administration sought to retrieve presidential records from him.

“[I]n an attempt to cooperate with NARA, President Trump asked his staff to retrieve 15 boxes that had been moved to Mar-a-Lago so he could see what was in them before they were sent to NARA in Washington, DC. However, due to other demands on his time, President Trump subsequently directed his staff to ship the boxes to NARA without any review by him or his staff,” the lawyers wrote.

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When Archives officials opened the boxes, authorities have said, they found 184 documents marked classified scattered among a range of other, unclassified material.

“The boxes contain all manner of documents from the White House, are loosely grouped by date, and include newspapers, magazines, notes, letters, and daily schedules,” the lawyers wrote, adding that the Archives allowed Trump’s lawyers to review the boxes earlier this year, once they had removed the classified documents and left placeholders where they were found.

The Trump lawyers wrote that they were able to discern that the “vast majority of the placeholder inserts refer to briefings for phone calls with foreign leaders that were located near the schedule for those calls.”

That shows, they wrote, “White House staff simply swept all documents from the President’s desk and other areas into boxes, where they have resided ever since.”

In May, federal prosecutors served Trump with a grand jury subpoena demanding the return of all documents marked classified. While a few dozen were turned over, a later FBI search of Mar-a-Lago found more than 100 more, including in the former president’s office.

Trump’s legal team argues that the subpoena and conduct by prosecutors since show the Justice Department set out to try to unfairly build a criminal case out of an issue that should have been handled as an administrative matter. Prosecutors, the Trump lawyers wrote, “chose a path of aggressive combativeness.”

A spokesman for special counsel Jack Smith — who was appointed by Attorney General Merrick Garland to handle the documents case in November, after Trump launched his 2024 campaign for the presidency — declined to comment Wednesday night.

The letter also repeatedly cites previous reporting by The Washington Post that prosecutors and the FBI agents on the case disagreed at key moments in the investigation over the best way forward. Trump’s lawyers argue those disagreements show the case is flawed, positing that a senior Justice Department official, Jay Bratt, was determined to seek a criminal case.

“As we now know from reporting by The Washington Post, Mr. Bratt fought with the FBI to block any further cooperation with” one of Trump’s lawyers, the letter states.

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When it comes to events following the serving of the May subpoena, the letter does not address other reporting by The Post, in which people close to the matter say an aide to Trump moved boxes out of a storage room at his request, or that investigators have gathered additional evidence of possible obstruction. The letter suggests that the reason 103 more classified documents were found by FBI agents when they searched Mar-a-Lago in August is because prosecutors had rushed Trump’s lawyers months earlier to comply with the subpoena too quickly.

And the letter repeats a long-standing position of Trump’s legal team, refusing to say whether Trump declassified the documents in question. The former president has repeatedly said he did so, but his lawyers have so far avoided repeating those claims.

“The purpose of this letter is not to opine about whether these documents are actually classified or have been declassified,” the lawyers wrote on the first page. Prosecutors have repeatedly asked witnesses close to Trump whether they know if he declassified the documents in question, according to people familiar with the matter.

Jacqueline Alemany contributed to this report.